Photo courtesy of Dr. Nausheen Shah
Photo courtesy of Dr. Nausheen Shah

A Wayne State University physics professor found a way to put her educational background to use in a unique way during the pandemic.

DETROIT—Eleven-year-old Iman narrated for a home video with her mother’s invention strapped to her back.The boxy pack made her appear to be a cross between a Ghostbuster and someone from “Star Wars.”

“This is my costume,” she declared proudly to the camera. “I’m going as a disco astronaut.”

Iman, 11, poses with her younger sibling on Halloween.

It was Halloween 2020, and many Michigan kids were preparing for trick-or-treating in never before seen conditions thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic. But Iman’s mother, Wayne State University Physics Professor Dr. Nausheen Shah, had been working for weeks on the personal air purification device that the young girl wore.

It’s called the Personal Ultraviolet Respiratory Germ Eliminating Machine—PUR-GEM for short.

“My daughter helped me name it,” she said, giving credit to the elder of her two children for assisting in both naming the air purification device and helping to beta test it.

The PUR-GEM is made of a box, tubing, and a mask or a hood (depending on the configuration). Inside it, air is disinfected using Ultraviolet-C (UVC) light. Shah sautered each small bulb in place by hand.

READ: Michigan Poison Control Calls Spike Nearly 90% Following Trump’s Disinfectant Comments

The UVC light is so powerful that it can break down and kill organisms living in the air, but with the light contained in the pack, the power is relegated to the air it comes in contact with.

While many scientists, engineers, and corporations were racing to manufacture appropriate protective equipment like masks and gloves, and later, vaccines, Shah was hoping to find a practical use for her scientific training.

“I just wanted to do something more meaningful with my time,” she reflected on the earliest days of the pandemic that moved all of her classes online. “I started looking into UVC.”

Her design allows for two-way purification. Not only does it purify the outside air in the wearer’s immediate vicinity, the two-pound pack also purifies air expelled by the wearer when they exhale.

Through the Helpful Engineering Initiative, Shah was able to connect with other professionals who were interested in the development of a UVC personal air disinfection device—because before the Michigan scientist’s invention, no such device existed. 

ICYMI: How a Detroit Factory Is Making Michigan’s Most-Polluted Zip Code Worse

To date, two papers on the device have been published: an initial proposal for the PUR-GEM and a paper detailing the development of the prototype.  

While Shah is proud of her invention, she says she still plans to stick to laboratory theory in the future.

“[Wayne State has] industry partners who will see if it can be manufactured simply to make it available for people,” she said.

Officials from the university were not able to comment on the device’s patent application, nor on its future as a mass-consumer product.

Shah says she’s happy to have had something to put her energy into this past year.

“I’m a scientist, not a product designer,” Shah laughed. “But also, I have a full-time job. I teach, I have my research projects that actually I’m paid for, as well as my students.”

According to the University of Michigan postgraduate, her best inventions, to date, are her children.

More information about Dr. Shah’s invention can be found on Wayne State University’s website.

UP NEXT: Michigan’s Convention Centers Will Become Mass Vaccination Sites